The Minnesota Vikings are coming off a season where they achieved many records no team wants to set. They not only had one of the worst special teams units in the league last year, but they also ranked as the seventh-worst unit in the history of the NFL. Realizing it was an area of concern, Rick Spielman and Co. set out to transform it. By moving on from Marwaan Malouf and elevating longtime assistant Ryan Ficken, the special teams didn’t just become better, it became one of the team’s biggest strengths.
Last year, the unit ranked near the bottom of the league by almost every metric. They were 31st in defensive DVOA, a value that was the third-lowest ever. Additionally, Pro Football Focus graded them 20th in the league. All season long, missed kicks, blocked punts, and muffed punts meaningfully set them back in games. They finished near the bottom of the league in punt- and kick-return yards.
To rectify this, the Vikings turned to Ficken, who has been with the team for 15 years. Like Kevin Stefanski, he served in multiple roles, but he worked as the assistant special teams coach from 2013-20.
Then the Vikings brought in players via free agency and drafted for depth with Patrick Jones II and Chazz Surratt. Those two joined impact special teams players like Troy Dye, Josh Metellus, and Dan Chisena, who established themselves last year despite the overall struggles of the unit.
The most critical moves they made were to shore up the return game, which previously ranked 31st in the NFL in net yards, slightly ahead of the Green Bay Packers. The Vikings made three distinct moves to address this weakness. They drafted Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Kene Nwangwu and signed Dede Westbrook.
Nwangwu and Smith-Marsette were known for their returning skills in college, holding several records in the Big Ten. Most notably, Nwangwu’s athletic profile stood out not only to NFL draft scouts but also to the Vikings’ brass. His Relative Athletic Score (RAS) was a whopping 9.88 out of 10, which ranked 18th out of 1,4683 running backs from 1987 to 2021, and he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash.
Westbrook had been pretty solid as a punt returner all season long. But on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers he had a 45-yard punt return that put the Vikings’ offense on the field around the Chargers’ 30-yard line. That punt return was the second-longest of the season in the NFL.
Nwangwu got hurt in the preseason, so Smith-Marsette won the kick-returning job out of camp. Smith-Marsette has returned four punts for 84 yards, which in itself is an upgrade. However, Nwangwu was almost ready to come back right around the time Smith-Marsette popped up on the injury report with a toe issue.
The fourth-round pick out of Iowa State didn’t do much in his NFL debut against the Dallas Cowboys. But he housed a 99-yard kick return against the Baltimore Ravens for his first career touchdown. Not only did Nwangwu score a touchdown in Baltimore, but he also successfully converted a fake punt in the same game, netting nine yards on fourth-and-two.
Mike Zimmer and his staff were so pleased with the results of that fake that they had no issues calling another fake punt against the Chargers. However, the officials blew the second attempt dead because the Vikings snapped the ball before the referees were set. On that play, they were going to run it to the left side with Nwangwu again.
But it’s not the return game that has dramatically improved. The Vikings’ kicking game has been reliable, outside of the missed kick in Arizona. Andrew DePaola, is PFF’s top-ranked long snapper. This season, Greg Joseph has made 19 of 23 field goal attempts, including two clutch kicks against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1 to tie the game and against the Detroit Lions to win it at the buzzer. He’s had his lows, like missed game-winner against the Arizona Cardinals. But he’s been more clutch than the average Vikings kicker.
The Vikings’ special teams has been a huge reason for their success. It says a lot about the front office and coaching staff that they had one of the worst units in NFL history last year, completely overhauled it, and now have one of the league’s best.